Technology and Theology: Stop Skimming and Dive Deep Again
by Kester Brewin
The many of us who read The Ooze will probably have more than a few things in common, and I don’t think I’d be putting down totally foolish money to bet that an interest in technology and theology would be two of them. For the past year or so I’ve been exploring these two passions in a series of events called Apple. We take a room in a pub in London and try to engage theologically with the technological changes that we see around us. Discussions have ranged from ‘is my Facebook self my real self’ to ‘is institutional religion an outmoded organizational technology.’ We tweet and argue and drink beer and try to work out if Jesus would ever consider healing my glitchy modem.
The debates have been light-touch, but have always touched on some very serious issues, many of which have been distilled in Nicolas Carr’s recent book The Shallows: Why the Internet is Changing the Way we Think, Read and Remember. Carr knows his stuff. He’s a hugely experienced technology user and very adept writer. He researches widely and isn’t afraid to ask tough questions or come to difficult conclusions. And his conclusions are difficult to digest, especially in a world of over-riding technological optimism. Our massively increased use of screen-based technology, he argues, is alienating us from something fundamentally important about ourselves. We are exposed to more data than ever before in human history, and yet are becoming neither more knowledgeable, nor more intelligent, nor more wise.
Why is this? ‘Whenever we turn on a computer,’ Carr writes, ‘we are plunged into an ecosystem of interruption technologies.’ We are all familiar with this. We sit to read an article online, and quickly check our email first. Then a pop-up tells us that someone has tweeted. We read it and then get back to the article, pausing for a moment in the second paragraph to look at the advertisement that is animatedly looping on the right of the page. An interesting link appears in the text, so we click that and have a quick scan of the page, before deciding to return to the article – just having a peek at Facebook while the page loads again… ‘How do users read on the web?’ one of Carr’s interlocutors asks rhetorically. ‘They don’t,’ is his cutting conclusion. (The irony of you reading this on a web-based magazine has not escaped me – give yourself a pat on the back and leave a comment if you made it this far into the article.)
What is the net result of this? We are in danger of becoming skimmers, never engaging anything in any depth. The problem with this is that significant memories are only formed when we are properly attentive. And the web, with its interruptions and increased sensory loading, weakens our attentiveness and thus our ability to assimilate information into rich understanding. We might argue that we are simply becoming better multi-taskers, and are in fact getting more done. But the research denies us this defense: ‘intensive multi-taskers,’ Stanford professor Clifford Nass is quoted by Carr as saying, ‘are suckers for irrelevancy. Everything distracts them.’
For those of us who used to read, but now read a great deal online, this has to be concerning. And for those of us who are known as Peoples of the Book, the concern runs deeper, because our decreased attentiveness to significant texts means weaker and poorer understanding of it.
But our increased computer use has other dangers too. Mark Twain once said that ‘to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.’ The point behind the quip is very serious: the hand that holds a hammer has actually become restricted to actions that hammers can achieve. It can very powerfully drive a nail into wood, but is unable to stroke a child’s cheek. As Carr puts it: ‘the price we pay to assume technology’s power is alienation.’ Any tool we pick up both enhances our power to do certain tasks, but alienates us from engaging in others. So by investing so much of our lives online we may find certain enhancements – increased numbers of ‘friends’ and an infinite ability to call up information – but must be aware of the alienating effects too – a decrease in physical empathy and a removal of silent presence with others.
The answer is not the rejection of technology, but deeply reflective and balanced use of it. We need to learn to put down the iPad and read a book – slowly, carefully, richly. To then put down the book and engage in a long conversation, without once checking for messages. But, beyond these things, we can see some forms of religion as a technology too: ways of life that give us power but alienate at the same time. So perhaps we also need to put down the label ‘Christian’, with all the values and status that that might bring, and simply be with those who are needy without once mentioning our own beliefs.
‘Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath,’ Jesus once said. And perhaps the old Jewish idea of laying down our tools for a day each week is one that needs revisiting. Not that we become Luddites, but that we become human again. ‘Everything that humans do to make it easier to operate computers,’ Carr notes, ‘is at the same time making it easier for computers to operate humans.’
Perhaps you feel it. Perhaps you feel the leeching effect of your devices, drawing your energy and attention. This needs to be broken. We need to become attentive, rich, wise and human again. To not be people of the book, or of the iPad or the web, to not substitute communication technologies for communication, nor social media for social action, but be attentive, wise and loving.
Kester Brewin teaches in a High School in London, England and has been hailed by Brian McLaren as ‘one of the leading public theologians for a new generation of thoughtful Christians’. His latest book Other: Loving God, Self and Neighbour in a World of Fractures has been called ‘a brilliant work’ by Phyllis Tickle, praised as ‘a work of rare beauty’ by Peter Rollins, and is due for release in the US in early 2011. He blogs at http://www.kesterbrewin.com.